A revival of August Wilson’s Fences, starring Denzel Washington opened last night. I saw the original with James Earl Jones more than twenty years ago and recall it being a powerful night of theater. I think Washington can be a dynamic performer but I haven’t been interested in his work for a long time. This might be good though.
There’s an exhilarated craziness in his eyes and a confrontational glint that dares us not to believe him. On the subject of his own life, Troy — a former Negro League baseball star turned sanitation worker, and a man whose name aptly evokes a legendary, ruined splendor — is a first-class mythmaker. Which means he’s also a first-class storyteller and a first-class self-deceiver, and that we’re going to hang on to his words.
Mr. Washington, a two-time Oscar winner, has his own personal specter to wrestle with in this production, directed by Kenny Leon and featuring a magnificent performance by Viola Davis as Troy’s wife, Rose. By starring in the first Broadway revival of “Fences,” which picked up about every major prize on offer in 1987, when it arrived on Broadway, Mr. Washington is stepping into the outsize shadow of James Earl Jones.
Large of frame and thunderous of voice, Mr. Jones has a titan’s presence that invested the embittered Troy with an aura of classical tragedy. He was big in every sense of the word, and there was instant pathos in the spectacle of a giant confined by the smallness of a world hedged in by 1950s racism. Mr. Washington has the fluid naturalness we associate with good screen actors, and when he played Brutus in the 2005 Broadway production of “Julius Caesar,” he often seemed to fade into the crowd of milling revolutionary Romans.